Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven years later...

Here's something I started writing September 12, 2002...

The line doesn't come as often as it once did, but occasionally I do say "Words are my life."

If only I could describe how many times words have actually failed me.

Like when I was driving an SUV down the Jersey Turnpike and I hear the words over the two-way, "Guys, you better turn on your radio. Something just happened in New York City."

You know how you start to use a phrase to describe someone, and it starts sticking, no matter what circumstance you're using it in, and even if the person you're talking to knows exactly who you're talking about? I'm pretty sure I've described Ed Rode to his wife as "my buddy Ed."

My buddy Ed called me sometime in the summer of 2001 to tell me about this freelance gig he was going to be part of, and wanted to know if I wanted to come along. I don't remember the date, but I remember taking the call. I was on my cell phone in the middle of Hickory Hollow Mall, fresh from a haircut and sort of wandering aimlessly, as I had no particular place to be that afternoon. Such is the life of a freelance writer.

He told me the story of the Williams Gas Pipeline Company and how they do this United Way fundraiser every year. This year, they were planning on being especially ambitious, putting together four teams to concurrently trace the company's pipelines across the country, riding the line as they called it, on bicycles. The shindig raised some $20 million-plus for the United Way, and Ed had been contracted to shoot still photography and create a website for the event. He was scheduled to shadow the ride's biggest group, some 80-plus riders, on their trip from New York to Houston.

And he needed a driver, which is where I came in. Oh, sure, we finagled some extra cash for me to write a few things for the site, but mainly I was a chauffeur.

As the gig got closer, Ed discovered that no one would rent him an SUV (we needed the room, and he needed to be able to shoot out the back) for a one-way trip from NYC to Houston. I jumped in with the suggestion that we rent the truck here in Nashville, I'd drive it up to New York, he'd fly in and meet me there, we'd do the trip, he'd fly back from Houston, I'd run up to Oklahoma to visit my folks for a few days and then drive it back to Nashville.

It was all falling into place. The vans that were ferrying the riders and their equipment around were in Harrisburg, Penn. the Saturday before we were scheduled to start on Monday. The plan worked like a charm: I'd drive to Harrisburg on Saturday, a piddling little 12-hour drive, and meet up with our Williams contact. We'd all caravan to the hotel we were staying at outside NYC, where everyone else (riders, Williams muckety-mucks and Ed) would come in on Sunday.

I remember very clearly standing in the parking lot of my apartment building, truck loaded, details taken care of (I checked the lock on my apartment door at least three times), and SUV door open, ready for me to hit the road. All that early September morning, some inexplicable feeling of dread had settled over me, and as I stood next to that door, one foot on the running board, I stopped and said a prayer asking God to watch over me, Ed and these people I was about to meet, that everybody would be safe, and the trip would be a success.

I got in the car, somewhat comforted, but still had this feeling that something bad was going to happen.

The ride up went without a hitch. I drove through a part of the country I'd never driven before, I listened to a lot of music, I made a few phone calls, and generally just enjoyed the ride, what with a new (albeit rented) SUV at my command and time on my side. I made it to Harrisburg in the early evening, and after hooking up with the Williams folks, running to a nearby grocery store for some last minute supplies (I had forgotten batteries, which to me is a good sign that I haven't forgotten something at home), and scarfing down a club sandwich (hotel food that never seems to satisfy) I went to bed.

The following day went like clockwork as well. The drive from Harrisburg to NYC was uneventful, and I got a good idea in my head of the kinds folks I’d be dealing with over the next week by listening to the walkie-talkie traffic of the seven vans of people in front of me. I was traveling in a non-trailer laden red SUV, so I volunteered to take up the rear of the caravan, and my vehicle became known as The Caboose within minutes, a name that would stick for the rest of the trip.

As we approached Manhattan, before veering off toward our hotel just over the river in The Meadowlands, I remember thinking, “I never thought I’d be driving a car where I could look out the window and see the World Trade Center.”

The rest of that Sunday, September 9, was relatively uneventful. The 2001 NFL season was kicking off that day, and from the window of our hotel room, you could look out and see Giants Stadium, where the Jets were playing their home opener. Ed and I cooled our heels in the room, plotting out the trip in our heads, checking our gear, watching some football and generally resting up for the big launch banquet later that night. The sit-down dinner kinda put a crimp in our plans to grab a cab and head into Manhattan to catch our newly-beloved Tennessee Titans that night on the screens of the ESPNZone in Times Square, but we figured we should probably stay with the group, meet the folks we were going to be spending the next nine days with, and of course, being the former newspaper geeks we are, we had to adhere to the unofficial Journalist’s Credo: free food tastes better.

Our wake-up call wasn’t especially welcome the following morning, especially since the Titans lost fairly spectacularly the night before. But we knew we needed to get our gear into the truck and have it ready to go by 5 a.m., because not long after that, we’d be pulling out, along with seven vans and trailers, to attempt to find parking spaces in lower Manhattan. We were kicking off the ride at the Today show, and everybody had to be there.

A quick trip through the Holland Tunnel, a couple of wrong turns and the first of many overpriced parking garages later, Ed and I made our way to the 30 Rock plaza where our group had gathered. Our spot on the show wasn’t going to be until the 8:30 half-hour, but by God, we were going to be there early if it killed us.

The spot went off without a hitch, Williams getting a good deal of free air time, great, let’s move on. We were due at another media event a few blocks uptown, but that still meant moving a lot of people and a lot of vehicles.


And that’s where I stopped writing that day, one year and one day after the events. Because it was just too painful. And it still is, seven years later.

But the nutshell facts are these: I was in New York City the day before all this happened. Ed and I, and the 100+ people from scattered parts of the country, whom we’d just met hours before, were leaving Princeton, N.J. and rolling toward Philadelphia when it happened. We were standing on the deck of the U.S.S. New Jersey when the towers collapsed. From that deck we watched a stream of airplanes land quickly, in succession, at the Philly airport…and then nothing. We were supposed to have an event at the White House the next day.

I have a different perspective than most of the rest of the people I know, not because I was in downtown Manhattan the day before, but because I didn’t watch the coverage on TV. I only heard it on the radio, picking up scattered patches of NPR stations as we serpentined through rural Pennsylvania to get to our destination outside D.C. I didn’t see the now-iconic footage until early in the evening, just before President Bush spoke and just before the meeting that determined that we would continue on that trip.

And so, we became a caravan of wanderers, making our scheduled run down the east coast, along the Gulf and onto Houston 10 days later, mainly because there was no other expedient way to get home at the time. Sure, Ed and I could have veered off at any time, but we stayed, because we had a job to do.

Particularly schlocky fiction writers would wrap up the story with the ride into Houston and that we all remain close-knit friends to this day, having witnessed the triumph of the American spirit together. Fact is, other than Ed (and we keep trying to shake each other but CMT, the CMA and Jack Daniels, among others, keep throwing us in cars together), I’ve not seen or heard of any of those people again, especially since Williams got Enron-ed out of existence a few years back.

The fact is, I couldn’t wait to get away from the throng we’d traveled more than 2,500 miles with. Ed traveled to New Orleans to stay and decompress with friends before heading back to Nashville. And as soon as the festivities were over, I headed north up I-45, through the Metroplex, and into Oklahoma to my parents’ place.

My feelings of anguish and despair over what had happened 10 days earlier dominated my thoughts as I sped through central Texas, mirrored by the torrential rainstorm that hit just outside of Dallas. The storm stopped as I approached downtown, and with the familiar skyline to my right, I remember seeing the most amazing sunset, not because of its beauty, but because of the vivid ugliness – blacks, purples, midnight blues, fiery oranges – contained within. The sky, the spirit, the soul…all had been badly bruised and were going to take a long time to heal.

The specifics of those 10 days on the road have faded pretty much over time as well…mainly because I did get to witness the triumph of the American spirit, how resolve in the face of tragedy was unanimously shown in those dark days after, how denizens of small towns and big cities alike experienced and redirected grief in the exact same ways.

Those memories have faded because I’ve watched that unanimity be shattered, willfully and consistently, over the past seven years.

I grow increasingly weary of people saying we can’t afford to live in a pre-9/11 world anymore. And while there are aspects in which they are right, I know they didn’t see what I saw as we traveled from state to state over that week-and-a-half span. And I know we can’t afford not to live in that post-9/11 state of mind. And yet we do. Because of the bad decisions others have made for us.

So today, as happens on a lot of days, my heart goes out to those who lost their lives on that day. But as unimaginable as that horror was for them, for those still around, life in America has become a much longer and more sustained type of horror. Because there remains this sense that much of this never had to happen in the first place.

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